NASA telescope finds 10 more planets that could have life

NASA's Kepler space telescope team has released a mission catalog of planet candidates that introduces 219 new candidates, 10 of which are near-Earth size and orbiting in their star's habitable zone, which is the range of distance from a star where liquid water could pool on the surface of a rocky planet.

NASA announced the latest findings in its hunt for friendly exoplanets on Monday, and the haul includes 219 new candidates.

A Kepler mission scientist said, for the first time, there is at least one planet that nearly matches the Earth. "Understanding their frequency in the galaxy will help inform the design of future NASA missions to directly image another Earth". The telescope has studied some 150,000 stars in the Cygnus constellation, a survey which NASA said is now complete.

"The Kepler data set is unique, as it is the only one containing a population of these near Earth-analogs - planets with roughly the same size and orbit as Earth", Mario Perez, Kepler program scientist, said in the release.

With Monday's addition of planets, the original Kepler mission now has resulted in the identificatoin of 4,043 planet candidates. Only 50 of them made it into the elite club of Earth-size exoplanets orbiting in their sun's habitable zone.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration launched the Kepler telescope in 2009 to learn if Earth-like planets are common or rare.

Scientists were even able to estimate the size and density of the planets. The conference was held at the Ames Research Center in California as part of exoplanet week, which began Saturday.

To get these newly refined results, the team moved away from identifying each signal by hand - an inconsistent method according to Susan Thompson, a Kepler research scientist for the SETI Institute.

Detected in four separate transit candidates, each around 302 days apart, associated with a star that is slightly smaller and cooler than our Sun, KOI-7711 hasn't been verified as a confirmed exoplanet yet.

NASA is getting better at identifying Earth-sized exoplanets in other ways, too.

A follow-up study, described today by astronomer Benjamin Fulton of the University of Hawaii at Manoa in Honolulu, fine-tuned the size measurements for some 2000 Kepler planets using the Keck telescopes in Hawaii.

The Kepler team found that planets which are about 1.75 times the size of Earth and smaller tend to be rocky, while those two- to 3.5 times the size of Earth become gas-shrouded worlds like Neptune.

Kepler continues to search for planets in different regions of space. A dozen of the planets that seem to be in the potentially habitable zone circle Earth-like stars, not cooler red dwarfs. More than 30 of those have been verified, NASA said. Kepler's main mission ended in 2013 after the failure of two of its four wheels that control its orientation in space.

  • Joey Payne